Some details are going to make your drawing, include them for sure, emphasise them!
Some details are going to break your drawing, like the ones below, so just leave them out.
Which is which, let’s get into it.
No ribs, just ribcage
Ok so here is the outline of a pose.
Here I’m going to show you what part of the original reference looked like. Even in just this little area there’s a lot going on. My eyes are picking up on all sorts, shadows, and I see there’s these bumps here made by the ribs.
It’s tempting to think that seems important, details make drawings look sophisticated right? So I could try to draw those…
If I keep drawing the little things my eyes are picking up on, which all seem important, pretty soon I’ll have a drawing like the above – not great.
And here’s a real example from a life drawing session I did just a few years ago where I did this. Here I’m making this mistake of picking up on every little contrast I see. I know about these struggles because they are very recent memories for me.
A big part of the plot in most poses is the ribcage mass itself. The overall volume. You want to show how it’s pushing things out on one side or dragging things inwards on the other side. In the image below, where the green arrow is, it’s coming down and then the lower torso is showing behind it with the red arrow, creating this overlap. Light is hitting it on the top and as you go more to the side plane, light is not hitting it any more. These big simple ideas are worth showing.
So these are great details to include, because these details tell us about the big important things we need to know about like the ribcage.
So you just try to focus on the information that explains big picture important stuff in the simplest way possible. If you were making a really long, detailed drawing, then you might subtly indicate small details like individual ribs but they would be visually secondary to the bigger things.
No strands, just hair mass
When it comes to drawing hair, I used to always bring out the strands as my priority, and then I’d wonder why does it look like the person has spaghetti on their head.
It was because I was emphasising that characteristic of the hair, the details, the strands. What I need to do is the same as with the ribcage, find the big volume first. Imagine it wasn’t strands but planes facing the light in different ways. You can see these bits reflect the light at us.
So here I put down a bit blob of black, grabbed an eraser and removed some black where the light was reflecting. Notice that the shapes of light cut across the hair strands.
Then you can add some little indications of strands, but those details are totally secondary to the important big shapes. It’s not fancy and took the same amount of time as the spaghetti hair.
So again, it’s not that you never draw the strands, it’s that is low priority compared to big volumes, big planes. That’s why art teachers often are going on about drawing boxes and stuff.
Curves through knuckles before finger outlines
This is another thing from Frank Gambino so shout out to Frank. Here I have tried to draw this hand focusing on the outline around it. That’s a logical approach right? I got my proportions pretty good, tried to pick out some nice details. Even with those efforts, it doesn’t look that great. We have to move on from the outline focus with hands, because by emphasising the outlines of the fingers we lose the planes and the structure in the hands and accidentally make the fingers chunky.
So instead, lets look for the curves through the knuckles as a priority. Another way to think of this is we are finding the simple big planes that the fingers creates, rather than thinking in terms of individual fingers. For a 2 minute gesture this is enough.
Then if we want to draw the fingers themselves, draw the negative space between them. The finger structure starts fanning out from the wrist, so there are serious gaps between them and drawing the negative space means you don’t lose that and don’t make them too chunky. So this drawing is simpler and with less details, but feels more real, at least to me.
Head volume before facial features
Of course we place a ton of importance on a person’s face. We can identify people, figure out how they feel and communicate with them through the face. When you think of a face, you’re thinking features – eyes, nose, mouth. Two problems come from that.
The first is because we focused on the face, we forget about the cranium. The big volume. Look at how small the cranium is here, I see this a lot.
We’ve got to prioritise the volume of the head, especially the cranium and the area above the eyebrows and ear and see how much mass is there, before worrying about the face itself. So find those eyebrows and the top of the ear, and focus on all that mass above it.
Eye sockets not irises
The second issue with focusing on features is that very often in a drawing the face will look like it’s painted onto the surface of the head like the image below. Again it comes from drawing the details of the features, the irises of the eyes and nostrils on the nose and outline of the lips on the mouth, before the actual head structure.
If you look up how to draw an eye, you might see tutorials that really emphasise all the intricate and beautiful details of the eye when you’re looking closely at it from the front without any context or structure around it.
But in a figure drawing, bringing them forward and making them extra prominent, drawing them before drawing the context around them, doesn’t bring out more humanity and connection with the figure, it makes things less natural and less engaging like this:
Just like with the ribcage earlier, we care about telling the viewer about big forms and structural shapes, not little surface details. Again it’s nothing complicated or fancy, it’s just what is priority and what isn’t. If it was just a quick gesture drawing of the figure, you might just go with the brow, edge of the eye socket and maybe bottom of nose:
Even if you are going to draw the whole face, you still want to prioritise the structure of the face – the depth of the eye sockets is huge. Maybe the cheekbones and the shadow shape under the lower lip.
Then even when you do turn your attention to the features like the eyes, you can look for it as part of that structure of the head – the curvature of the eyeball itself sitting in the socket.
Then there’s the top part of the eyelashes and how they curve over the surface of the ball. And finally, if you still have time to add more and all those other priority things are established, you can indicate a little mark for the iris itself. You might find that by then, it’s only a little subtle mark that’s needed for that surface detail.
The general principle
So hopefully you get the general idea here. Some details are ok because they tell us about big picture stuff. The belly button is great because it indicates the centre line of the torso’s volume. The veins on the forearm, not so important. You can make details useful too. If you are drawing a foreshortened hand, the wrinkles on the knuckles are just surface details, unless you emphasise the way they wrap around the fingers. Now they are important because they are explaining the form and the foreshortening.
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